Saturday, December 31, 2011

Unasked Questions

It's a good thing Richard Benedetto is retired. After publication of his recent column at Real Clear Politics, Mr. Benedetto (a former White House correspondent for USA Today) would have a hard time landing another MSM gig. Not only is Benedetto concerned about Barack Obama's lack of answers on critical issues (ranging from Afghanistan to the economy), he's also upset at his former colleagues, for refusing to pose the questions. As he writes:

Over the past five months, the Republican presidential candidates participated in 13 debates where they fielded dozens of penetrating questions on every major issue facing the nation, and some not so major.

Yet, during all that time, the man they hope to defeat next November has rarely been asked by news reporters about many of these issues. Since August, President Obama has held only one formal White House news conference. That came on Oct. 6, nearly three months ago. It lasted 74 minutes, shorter than any single Republican debate, and the president was asked 17 questions, most of them softballs on the economy and his latest legislative proposals to create jobs.

No questions on immigration, no questions on Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan or Israel or North Korea -- global trouble spots the GOP candidates have been queried about repeatedly. Moreover, he was not asked about what spending cuts he would make to reduce the deficit, nothing about Medicare and Social Security reform or his health care law, all familiar questions for the Republicans seeking his job.

Benedetto is correct is surmising that Obama's silence is a calculated strategy. In the view of the MSM, the President seems cool and above the fray, while Republicans spar over virtually all elements of American public policy. Some analysts believe this approach was responsible for a recent bump in Mr. Obama's approval numbers, although that spike was extremely short-lived.

But there's a more disturbing aspect to this scenario, and it goes well beyond MSM reporters who are in the tank for Obama. Indeed, the fact that journalists are openly aiding the President in his re-election bid is hardly a surprise; the White House press corps, along with the majority of reporters who work inside The Beltway, are overwhelmingly liberal, and have much invested in the political fortunes of Barack Obama. So far, relatively few of the MSM crowd seem willing to jump ship, and they're quite willing to regurgitate stories that advance the campaign narrative.

From our perspective, Mr. Obama's refusal to engage on critical issues is more than a campaign strategy--it reflects an administration that clearly lacks ideas. Consider the recent change-of-leadership in North Korea. The death of Kim Jong-il clearly caught U.S. leaders by surprise, and so far, our policy towards the new regime seems to be a continuation of the engagement and appeasement approach that has failed miserably for more than a decade. Now would be a good time to re-engage China (and other regional partners) on the subject of North Korea, with a long-term goal of putting more pressure on Kim Jong-un and forcing genuine concessions from his regime, in exchange for increased humanitarian aid and economic development--once DPRK compliance has been confirmed.

Then, there's the matter of Iran. Tehran recently launched major naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and has made veiled threats about closing the Strait of Hormuz. So far, the U.S. response has been a quote from an unnamed administration official who complained about Iranian "saber-rattling." President Obama was apparently too busy with his Hawaiian vacation to offer his own comments, suggesting (once again) that the administration isn't quite sure what Iran is up to--or what to do about it.

And maybe that explains why the press corps won't press Obama on key domestic and international concerns. Not only would tough questioning put "their guy" on the spot, it might also affirm his lack of engagement and thought on these and other issues. In a recent interview, the President admitted he has a "lazy streak." So, it's more convenient for him to trot out Hillary Clinton to field questions on Iran, or let Press Secretary Jay Carney handle queries about North Korea.

In any case (as Richard Benedetto reminds us), the American public remains badly served by a press corps that refuses to do its job. Not that we'd expect anything less from the MSM at the end of 2011. And they wonder why their audience and readership numbers are in free-fall.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Words of Warning?

Driving past my gas station in the Old Dominion a couple of days ago, I noticed that gas prices had jumped .20 a gallon over night. And, it didn't take an energy expert to figure out why. With Iran conducting naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz (and making vague threats about possibly shutting down the strategic waterway), global oil markets are getting nervous.

Indeed, some oil analysts are now talking in near-apocalyptic terms. From

The pieces and policies for potential conflict in the Persian Gulf are seemingly drawing inexorably together.

Since 24 December the Iranian Navy has been holding its ten-day Velayat 90 naval exercises, covering an area in the Arabian Sea stretching from east of the Strait of Hormuz entrance to the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden. The day the maneuvers opened Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told a press conference that the exercises were intended to show "Iran's military prowess and defense capabilities in international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and test the newest military equipment." The exercise is Iran's first naval training drill since May 2010, when the country held its Velayat 89 naval maneuvers in the same area. Velayat 90 is the largest naval exercise the country has ever held.


The exercises have put Iranian warships in close proximity to vessels of the United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, which patrols some of the same waters, including the Strait of Hormuz, a 21 mile-wide waterway at its narrowest point. Roughly 40 percent of the world's oil tanker shipments transit the strait daily, carrying 15.5 million barrels of Saudi, Iraqi, Iranian, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Qatari and United Arab Emirates crude oil, leading the United States Energy Information Administration to label the Strait of Hormuz "the world's most important oil chokepoint."

As the article notes, Iran's naval exercise comes on the heels of its recent "capture" of a U.S. RQ-170 reconnaissance drone. Tehran claims it successfully hacked into the aircraft's guidance signal, forcing it to land in Iranian territory. Military spokesmen say Iran is demonstrating its full range of military capabilities during the exercise, utilizing surface vessels, submarines, aircraft, drones and other assets.

But, as we've pointed out before, care must be taken in estimating Tehran's tactical abilities. For example, Iran's naval forces look impressive enough on paper, until you consider that many naval units only rarely put to sea, including its diesel submarines. There's also the critical matter of airpower; Tehran would quickly lose air superiority over the strait in a battle with the U.S., leaving ships, subs, and land-based missile sites even vulnerable to attack.

Still, Iran doesn't need to win a protracted struggle with American forces to effectively close the Strait of Hormuz. Once the first tanker hits a mine, or is struck by a missile, insurance underwriters will stop issuing coverage for commercial traffic in the region, reducing the flow of crude to a trickle--with a corresponding (and predictable) impact on oil and gas prices. Even a brief interruption in oil traffic through the strait would send prices skyrocketing towards the $200 level mentioned into today's analysis.

Why would the mullahs choose such a path? For a variety of reasons, including retaliation for new sanctions being imposed by the United States. By closing the strait--even for a few days--Iran believes it can strike a telling blow against the west, and undercut U.S. efforts to punish Tehran. It would also serve another, key geopolitical purpose: demonstrating that Iranian power is on the ascendancy, while America slowly withdraws from the Persian Gulf region.

Late today, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul said new sanctions against Iran were "acts of war." Go figure. So far, the Obama Administration seems willing to stay the course, and risk the consequences of further adventurism by Tehran. In reality, they have little choice. Washington has been ignoring the Iranian menace for far too long and we're facing the potentially dire consequences of our own inaction.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Last International Crisis of 2011 (or the First of 2012)

Iran has kicked off a 10-day naval exercise in international waters, near the Strait of Hormuz. From the AP:

The exercises, dubbed "Velayat 90," could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels in the area.

The war games cover a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch of sea off the Strait of Hormuz, northern parts of the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden, near the entrance to the Red Sea, state TV reported.

The drill will be Iran's latest show of strength in the face of mounting international criticism over its controversial nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Tehran denies those charges, insisting the program is for peaceful purposes

Those "U.S. Navy vessels in the area" are part of the John C. Stennis carrier battle group, which has been operating in the area for several weeks. In fact, an E-2C Hawkeye from the carrier's air group flew the last American mission over Iraq last weekend.

Iran reportedly plans to use its exercise to show off military hardware that could be used to close the Strait of Hormuz, including submarines, anti-ship missiles, drones, manned aircraft and surface vessels. The drill took on added significance when an Iranian politician recently boasted that Iran might actually close off the strategic waterway during the drill. However, the Iranian foreign ministry quickly backed off that claim, although military officers have reaffirmed Tehran's ability to carry out such actions.

The real danger, of course, is what can happen when poorly disciplined Iranian air and naval crews operate in close proximity to U.S. ships and aircraft. The margin for miscalculation is large, especially when you consider that Tehran would love nothing more than provoking a major confrontation with the United States, and shift attention away from its nuclear program.

On the other hand, Iran may find it more beneficial to temper its fanatical desires. Sure, creating an incident in the strait would generate a global trade crisis and produce a major spike in global oil prices. But it would also invite an expanded American military presence in the region, at a time when our forces are completing their exit from Iraq.

Clearly, our forces in the region are operating under strict rules-of-engagement. But our personnel can also exercise their inherent right to self defense, if the Iranians threaten American military forces. With Tehran feeling its geopolitical oats right now, it's not unreasonable to expect some type of confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces in the coming days. From Tehran's view, such an encounter would serve a useful purpose, illustrating how far the Obama Administration is (or isn't) willing to go in defending our interests--and allies--in the Gulf.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What a Guy

Kim Jong-il's legacy is rather grim, befitting a modern despot.

Mass murderer? Check. Under his watch, at least one million North Korean peasants starved to death in the mid-1990s, allowing "The Dear Leader" to divert food aid to his military and continue development of nuclear weapons.

Jailer of a Nation? Ditto. Kim keep the gulags humming during his 16 years in power. By one estimate, at least 250,000 North Korean citizens are imprisoned in state jails and labor camps. That may seem rather puny by Soviet standards, but it's worth remembering that North Korea has a population of only 22 million, so roughly one out of every 100 residents of the worker's paradise is behind bars. And, Kim Jong-il made it a shared experience; family members of prisoners are routinely sent to the gulag, too.

Enjoyed a Decadent Lifestyle? Absolutely. While ordinary North Koreans eat tree bark for nourishment, Kim Jong-il enjoyed gourmet fare (the standard joke in intel circles is that Kim and his family were the only people in the DPRK with weight problems). The great dictator also boasted the world's largest private film collection (remember, this is the same guy who ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean director and his actress wife to improve the quality of North Korean movies); maintained a three story "pleasure palace in downtown Pyongyang, and vacationed a country estate with its own surface-to-air missile battery.

International Terrorist? Yep. Kim Jong-il was responsible for the deaths of dozens of South Korean military personnel, government officials and ordinary civilians. The 1968 Blue House attack (directed at the ROK Presidential mansion); the 1983 Rangoon bombing (aimed at decapitating the South Korean government), the 1987 downing of KAL Flight 858 (which killed 115 passengers and crew), and just last year, the sinking of a ROK destroyer and the shelling of a South Korean island along the maritime DMZ. All bore the personal stamp of Kim Jong-il.

Given this resume, it would be difficult to say anything good about the deceased North Korea dictator. Yet, the State Department's #3 official, Wendy Sherman, had no trouble praising Kim Jong-il, during an interview with NPR. Here's how Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy summarized her remarks:

[Ms.] Sherman, a special adviser to President Clinton on North Korea, accompanied then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2001, and met Kim along with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.

"We shared similar impressions of meeting him. He was smart and a quick problem-solver," Sherman says. "He is also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world."

Sherman sat next to Kim at a stadium to watch a huge festival of synchronized dancing. She says she turned to Kim and told him she had the sense that in some other life, he was a "great director."

"He clearly took such delight in putting these performances together," she says. "And he says, yes, that he cared about this a great deal and that he owned every Academy Award movie, he had watched them all, and he also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them as well."

Why, that practically makes him a Jeffersonian Democrat, doesn't it? Any serious observer of North Korea would dismiss such comments as pure pap, but when you consider the source, it's down-right scary. In her current post, Ms. Sherman has considerable influence over U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it relates to North Korea. Her willingness to overlook Mr. Kim's flaws speaks volumes about our diplomatic establishment, and its recent overtures towards Pyongyang. The last three administrations (Democrat and Republican) have bent over backwards to accomodate the DPRK, in hopes of brokering some sort of agreement on North Korea's nuclear program. In return, Pyongyang has played the U.S. like a proverbial fiddle, using provocations to extract more aid, offering only vague promises in return.

The diplomatic calculus goes something like this: through engagement, the U.S. and its partners can avoid a geopolitical calamity on the Korean Peninsula, and prepare for the eventual, "soft" collapse of the Kims' dictatorial dynasty. Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this theory: first, China, the most important ally of the DPRK, has never brought enough pressure to affect Pyongyang's behavior, or supported genuinely tough sanctions that would achieve similar goals.

Secondly, every so-called "expert" on the subject has consistently underestimated North Korea's ability to muddle through. As a military intelligence officer two decades ago, I remember reviewing a summary of a ROK Ministry of Defense White Paper that predicted South Korea's main adversaries in 2010 would be Japan and China. By that point, analysts predicted, North Korea would have long since imploded. Obviously, the smart guys with Seoul got it wrong--as did their American counterparts. North Korea is clearly headed for the ash heap of history, but it may outlast many of those predicting its collapse. And there's always the question of whether Pyongyang goes out with a whimper--or a bang.

Further complicating the picture is Kim Jong-an's near-total lack of leadership experience. He was anointed as the "Great Successor" barely a year ago, and must rely on family members (and the military) to help him gain his footing. Recent reporting from the DPRK indicates that foreign delegations will not be allowed to attend Kim Jong-il's massive state funeral, suggesting there are already internal concerns about the succession process.

Another element of concern is our own naivete towards North Korea. Wendy Sherman's comments are indicative of our willingness to ignore reality in the DPRK, hoping vainly that a reformer will emerge or Pyongyang will simply pursue more rational policies. Our insistence on turning the other cheek only invites more North Korean mischief, as the peninsula faces one of its most dangerous periods in more than 50 years.
ADDENDUM: The New York Times is using the term "intelligence failure" to describe U.S. and South Korean reporting in the hours between Kim Jong-il's actual demise and the announcement of his death. Apparently, the U.S. intel community (and its ROK conterparts) failed to detect any signs of unusual activity after Kim died on his train Saturday morning:

"...South Korean and American intelligence services to have failed to pick up any clues to this momentous development — panicked phone calls between government officials, say, or soldiers massing around Mr. Kim’s train — attests to the secretive nature of North Korea, a country not only at odds with most of the world but also sealed off from it in a way that defies spies or satellites.


“We have clear plans about what to do if North Korea attacks, but not if the North Korean regime unravels,” said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser in the Bush administration. “Every time you do these scenarios, one of the first objectives is trying to find out what’s going on inside North Korea.”

In many countries, that would involve intercepting phone calls between government officials or peering down from spy satellites. And indeed, American spy planes and satellites scan the country. Highly sensitive antennas along the border between South and North Korea pick up electronic signals. South Korean intelligence officials interview thousands of North Koreans who defect to the South each year.

And yet remarkably little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government. Pyongyang, officials said, keeps sensitive information limited to a small circle of officials, who do not talk."

And there's the rub. North Korea is built on compartmentalization, where only the inner circle knows what's going on, and they don't leak to the Times. Moreover, the DPRK also benefits from technology that is outdated by western standards. Cell phones have only been recently introduced in North Korea; most calls are still made over old-fashioned land lines, which are not conducive to intercept--unless you find a way to tap into the circuit.

Additionally, the North Koreans are well-versed in denial and deception techniques. If there was any congregating around Kim's train after his demise, that crowd was dispersed when spy satellites passed overhead, or the long-range cameras from American U-2s (or other surveillance platforms) were within range.

In a hermit kingdom like North Korea, it's almost impossible to develop reliable human intelligence assets, a problem that has vexed our spymasters for more than five decades. During my time in "the game," one of our few sources of HUMINT from North Korea came from Asian businessmen who traveled to Pyongyang. Naturally, their movements were closely controlled and most had a "minder" in tow. So, their impressions of the DPRK were clearly shaped by the Pyongyang government, which only added to our knowledge gaps.

And that won't change under the "new" regime of Kim Jong-un.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Dear Leader Assumes Room Temperature

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il is dead. According to both Reuters and the Associated Press, state media in the DPRK announced Kim's demise earlier today:

Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.

In a "special broadcast" Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" on Dec. 17 during a "high intensity field inspection." It said an autopsy was done on Dec. 18 and "fully confirmed" the diagnosis.

Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media. The communist country's "Dear Leader" - reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine - was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.

Initial broadcasts from North Korean TV referred to the dead ruler in the hagiographical terms normally reserved for the younger Kim and his father, Kim il-Sung, founder of the DPRK. Kim Jong-il took power in Pyongyang 16 years ago, following the death of his father.

"It is the biggest loss for the party ... and it is our people and nation's biggest sadness," an anchorwoman clad in black Korean traditional dress said in a voice choked with tears. She said the nation must "change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties."

While Kim Jong-il's demise was not totally unexpected, it did come as something of a surprise. He recovered sufficiently from his 2008 stroke to retain the reigns of power and lay the groundwork for another hereditary succession, to his third son, Kim Jong-am. Believed to be in his later 20s, Kim Jong-am is two decades younger than his father when he succeeded Kim Il-Sung, and desperately lacking in leadership experience. Since anointing him as North Korea's next leader in 2010, Kim Jong-il quickly raised his son's profile and administrative portfolio. But with the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, there are legitimate questions about the new leader's ability to retain power through the upcoming transition process.

However, it might be a mistake to bet against Kim Jong-am. Similar questions were raised about Kim Jong-il but he managed to consolidate power by winning the support of his most important constituency, the DPRK military. In the years leading up to his death, Kim Jong-il elevated a number of younger officers who are considered more "accepting" of his son as the next leader; they will form the bedrock of support on which Kim Jong-am will build his regime.

Suffice it to say, the next North Korean leader faces grave challenges. The nation' economy is in the toilet, with no prospects for recovery. Pyongyang's most viable exports are ballistic missiles and WMD technology, along with illegal drugs and counterfeit currency. Millions of North Korean peasants face starvation, due to years of agricultural failures. It's a situation similar to the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il allowed at least one million peasants to perish, so scarce food supplies could be directed to the military and political elites. Given the same scenario, Kim Jong-am will likely follow his father's example.

But there's no assurance the populace will tolerate those tactics again. In recent years, there have been faint signs of political opposition and discontent within the DPRK. And, with more North Koreans gaining glimpses of the outside world, tolerance for the gulag state may continue to erode. If Kimg Jong-am can't consolidate power quickly--with the support of the military--North Korea's death spiral may accelerate, increasing the odds of a military and humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula.

That's one reason South Korea's military went on heightened alert when news of Kim's passing was announced. Seoul realizes that North Korea has adopted a much more provocative foreign policy in recent years, as evidenced by Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, and more recently, the sinking of a ROK destroyer and the shelling of a South Korean island (along the maritime DMZ) in 2010. It is believed that Kim Jong-am played a role in both of those latter decisions and he would use similar tactics to gain attention (and aid) from his adversaries.

The passing of Kim Jong-il does not mean a corresponding increase in the prospects for war. If anything, the new leader will need time to secure his grip on power before embarking on specific foreign policy objectives. But having learned from the master of brinksmanship, there is no sign that Pyongyang's new leader will abandon that strategy, particularly since it has proven so effective in the past.

As for the U.S. reaction, look for Foggy Bottom to release some sort of bland statement suggesting an opportunity for improved relations with North Korea, somewhere down the road. The Obama Administration has largely ignored DPRK provocations in recent years, hoping that Pyongyang would eventually come around on the nuclear problem and other contentious issues. Don't look for that to change, either. In the mean time, the Korean Peninsula will become a much more dangerous place.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Casing the Colors

For the U.S. military, the war in Iraq formally ended today, with a ceremony in Baghdad. From The Wall Street Journal:

After nearly nine years of war, tens of thousands of casualties--including 4,500 Americans dead--and more than $800 billion spent, the U.S. military on Thursday formally ended its mission in Iraq and prepared to leave the country.
For years, U.S. commanders in Iraq have handed off to their successors the top call sign, Lion 6, along with the American battle flag adorned with a Mesopotamian sphinx. But on Thursday, in a tradition-drenched ceremony with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looking on, the current Lion 6—Army Gen. Lloyd Austin—pulled down the colors and cased them for a return to the U.S.

"No words, no ceremony, can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that brought this day to pass," Mr. Panetta said.

In the coming days, the last of the 4,000 U.S. military personnel still in Iraq will follow the flag and head home—leaving fewer than 200 to serve as part of the diplomatic mission.

There was, of course, a certain irony in today's events. As with most modern wars, there was no surrender ceremony, and there won't be any ticker-tape parades through New York City for our returning heroes. And no one used the word "victory" to describe the outcome of our nine-year stay in Iraq.

Sadly, that is also a reflection of our times. After almost a decade (and thousands of war dead), no one appears willing to call Iraq a victory, given that country's uncertain future. Iran is already moving to fill the power vacuum created by the departure of our troops, and it's easy to envision an Iraq that (at some point) will be closely aligned with Tehran.

And, perhaps future historians will note that we had the opportunity to extend our stay in Iraq, providing more training for the domestic forces now charged with keeping the peace. But we took a pass on that option, in the name of election-year politics. As a politician who long opposed the war in Iraq, President Obama will be happy to run for re-election as the man "who brought the troops home."

But before the colors fade, and Iraq becomes a chapter in our history books (or a sound bite for a campaign commercial), it is well worth remembering the sacrifice, heroism and valor of the men and women who served there. All were volunteers, and many pulled multiple tours in Iraq, enduring months and years of separation from family, friends and loved ones.

They deserve credit for not only performing their duty, but transforming Iraq in the process. After the toppling of Saddam's government, Iraq began a slide into chaos, as old sectarian divides resurfaced, with scores to be settled. Al Qaida joined the fray as well, pouring thousands of jihadis into the battle, hoping to inflict massive casualties on the U.S. and drive us from Iraq.

But those efforts failed. A U.S. military designed for large-scale maneuver warfare shifted its focus to small-unit, counter-insurgency operations. aimed at eliminating terrorist networks and protecting the Iraqi people. And, at a critical juncture in the battle, President Bush went against the counsel of so-called "wise men" (and women) in Washington, adopting a surge strategy that sent even more troops to Iraq. Our new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, put more ground forces out in the field, based among the Iraqi citizens they were charged with defending.

There were months of bitter fighting in 2007 and American casualties actually rose, and the pace of our operations increased. But the surge worked, breaking the back of enemy resistance. Iraq became a much more peaceful place as thousands of terrorists met their end, eventually prompting Al Qaida to look at more promising operational theaters--namely Afghanistan.

The efforts of U.S. and Iraqi troops, along with the coalition partners also allowed Iraq to form a fledgling democracy. Iraqis defied terrorist threats and violence to go the polls for free and fair elections, dipping their fingers in purple ink wells that signified they had voted. It was a powerful rebuke to the terrorists and one of the earliest indicators that Iraqis were willing to do their part--if the U.S. stayed the course.

While some Iraqis are cheering the departure of our last troops, others are worried about what comes next. The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's security forces, and many of them are extremely competent. But they will face a real test in the months and years ahead, as Iran tries to exert its influence, and sectarian groups push their own agendas.

In the end, it might be written, the U.S. gave Iraq a fighting chance for a democratic future. It is now up to the sons and daughters of that country to preserve what was established in blood and treasure. In today's world, it may be the best outcome we could hope for. But on the other hand, we should also hope that historians and war college students in 2020 aren't debating about "who lost Iraq," due to a hasty pull-out.
ADDENDUM: If you know someone who served in Iraq, thank them for their service. They helped introduce a genuine "Arab Spring," creating security conditions that helped foster the most democratic regime in that part of the world (with the exception of Israel). Compare that to the more recent Arab uprisings that are ushering in new authoritarian regimes. The contrast between Iraq and what is happening in Egypt could not be more clear. We can only hope that Iraq's democracy survives the tough road ahead, so the sacrifice of thousands of young Americans will not have been in vain.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Preventing Pearl Harbor

Admiral J.O. Richardson prepares to testify before the first Pearl Harbor commission in early 1942. A former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Richardson was fired by President Roosevelt for telling him the fleet was unprepared for war, and should be redeployed to its home port in San Diego (U.S. Archive photo)

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It's a particularly poignant remembrance, since it will be the last major commemoration for the dwindling band of Pearl Harbor survivors; the youngest of those men and women are now in their late 80s and many won't be with us for future anniversaries. On this day--and every day--they deserve our thanks and gratitude for their heroism and sacrifice on that horrific Sunday morning in Hawaii, so long ago.

Pearl Harbor observations also reignite a long-running historical debate: could the attack have been prevented, sparing the lives of 2,000 Americans who died on that fateful December day in 1941. While war clouds had been gathering for years before the Japanese strike, supporters of FDR claim that neither the President, nor his senior advisers, had any direct knowledge of a pending attack on Pearl Harbor, and could not provide definitive warning to Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short, the senior Navy and Army commanders in Hawaii.

Still, there is plenty of evidence that U.S. intelligence was aware the Japanese fleet was on the move in late 1941, and might carry out a strike against American possessions in the Pacific. In his book Day of Deceit, journalist Robert Stinnett debunked the myth that Japanese commanders maintained strict radio silence as they crossed the Pacific. In fact, American SIGINT sites intercepted scores of messages in late November and early December, linking them to Japanese carrier groups at sea. One source even claims that a location "plot" on enemy forces (maintained at ONI headquarters in Washington, D.C.) showed suspected Japanese carriers west of Hawaii on the evening of December 6th.

Additionally, radio direction finding assets on the U.S. West Coast (and in the Pacific region) placed Japanese naval formations northwest of Hawaii within 48 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack. There were similar warnings from British and Dutch cryptanalysts, who had some success in breaking Japanese military codes before the attack; they issued reports that Japanese carriers were heading towards Hawaii in late November 1941. There is also evidence that U.S. signals intelligence posts in Hawaii and on Corregidor provided similar reports in the weeks leading up to the attack.

Pearl Harbor was clearly at the top of Japan's potential target list, but raids on the Philippines, Alaska, Wake Island and Guam couldn't be ruled out. So, U.S. commanders in the Pacific faced the daunting challenge of locating the Japanese fleet, across millions of miles of open seas. That task was further complicated by a long-standing directive from Washington to limit air searches north and west of Hawaii--the most likely approach corridors for an approaching Japanese fleet --and the fact that Kimmel and Short were denied access to the most sensitive intelligence information, including analysis from station HYPO in Hawaii.

These facts (and others) have fueled speculation that FDR used his Pacific fleet as bait, inviting a Japanese attack that would push American into World War II, on the side of the allies. Supporters of Mr. Roosevelt, including many historians, have dismissed such speculation as little more than conspiracy theories, despite the discover of such documents as the McCollum memo, prepared by a senior analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence, that advocated a provocative strategy towards Japan that might lead to war. The McCollum strategy was implemented in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, affirming that the memo was circulated--and adopted--at the highest levels of U.S. government.

While the debate over FDR's actions continues to rage, there is one incontrovertible fact: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor could have been easily prevented, had President Roosevelt followed the advice of his previous Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral J.O. Richardson. During his tenure as CINCPAC, Richardson repeatedly warned of his fleet's vulnerability at Pearl Harbor, and requested that most of his ships return to their home port in San Diego. When FDR refused, Richardson stuck to his guns and paid a high price: he was fired as CINCPAC in early 1941 and replaced by Admiral Kimmel.

Today, few Americans remember J.O. Richardson, but he was a key player in the Pearl Harbor saga, a voice of military reason that was completely ignored. A 1902 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Richardson was considered the service's leading expert on the Japanese fleet, its strategy and tactics. After rising steadily through the ranks, Admiral Richardson was hand-picked for the CINCPAC job by FDR in late 1939, as Europe plunged into World War II.

Almost from the start, Richardson clashed with his superiors over their plans for the Pacific Fleet. In January 1940, Admiral Richardson advised the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, that existing plans for war with Japan were unrealistic; his warning to the CNO was reprinted in Richardson's memoir, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor, published in 1974:

" You [Stark] are the principal and only Naval Adviser to the boss and he should know that our Fleet cannot just sail away, lick Orange, and be back at home in a year or so. Also the probable cost (human and physical resources) of any war should be compared [with] the probable value of winning the war."

Richardson was also concerned about the lack of readiness in his command. Admiral Robert Carney, who served as CNO during the Eisenhower Administration, recalls a meeting with Richardson in the summer of 1940, when Carney was executive officer on the battleship California. Carney was among a group of mid-level officers summoned by the CINCPAC; Richardson knew they would play a critical leadership role in the coming war with Japan, and he wanted them to know the actual condition of their fleet. As Carney later recalled:

"Pointing out the lack of advanced bases, the the slow pace of updating the fleet's offensive and defensive characteristics, the fact there were fatal shortages in ammunition replacements and backup stocks of fuel, spare parts and essential supplies and the tenders and logistical ships needed to support an advanced-positioned fleet--he was saying, in plain and understandable language, that the Navy wasn't ready for war. Step by step, he dismantled my confident belief that the U.S. Navy could win a quick decision. Instead, proceeding from our deficiencies, he foresaw the United States hanging on for a couple of years while the country and the service built the strength necessary for an offensive campaign, then a hard fight of a year or two before victory could be won."

Admiral Richardson offered this dire prediction while members of Roosevelt's inner circle (including Navy Secretary Frank Knox) were asserting that the U.S. fleet could finish off the Japanese in only three months.

Along with his written warnings, Richardson also made two trips to Washington for meetings with President Roosevelt. During those sessions, Admiral Richardson repeated his grim assessment for the Commander-in-Chief. But FDR quickly became irritated and decided to make a command change. In October of 1940, an administration source told The Kiplinger Letter that Richardson would be replaced in the coming months. Admiral Richardson was relieved as CINCPAC in February 1941, after only one year on the job. His successor, Admiral Kimmel, proved to be more malleable, and voiced no major objections to keeping the fleet in Hawaii, setting the stage for the ensuing debacle at Pearl Harbor.

Richardson was back in Washington, serving as an adviser to the CNO, when the Japanese attacked. His retirement date had been set for 1 October 1942, but with America's entry into the war, he remained an adviser on naval affairs before finally leaving the service in 1947. Admiral Richardson passed away in 1974, fully vindicated by the events of December 1941, and by historical information that emerged after the war.

Sadly, only World War II buffs and naval historians are familiar with the courageous stand of J.O. Richardson. At the cost of his own career, Admiral Richardson stood on principle, trying to avert a military disaster that he believed could be averted, by returning the fleet to San Diego and engaging in the preparations needed to ready the Navy for war.

Richardson's integrity and candor offer an important lesson for military leaders--or anyone in a position to advise decision-makers. Even in that rarefied air, it is essential to tell "the boss" what they need to hear--not what they want to hear. Admirlal Richardson did just that, realizing his advice might fall on deaf ears and result in his dismissal. It's regrettable that so many of his peers failed to follow his shining example in the days before Pearl Harbor.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Defendant Speaks (Again)

We were a bit puzzled when disgraced former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky recently sat down for an interview with NBC's Bob Costas and tried to explain his behavior--the same conduct that has led to charges of child rape and various other crimes. The interview was cringe-worthy, particularly when Sandusky took more than 20 seconds to respond to a rather straight-forward question from Costas, who asked: are you sexually attracted to young boys?

More recently, we were puzzled again when Sandusky agreed to an extended interview with Jo Becker, a reporter from The New York Times. You can read her here, or watch video from their conversation at the paper's web site. Needless to say, Sandusky didn't exactly help his cause with some of his replies to Ms. Becker's questions. From the Times' article, which was published Saturday, just hours before the inaugural Big Ten football championship game.

He said his household in State College, Pa., over the years came to be a kind of recreation center or second home for dozens of children from the charity, a place where games were played, wrestling matches staged, sleepovers arranged, and from where trips to out-of-town sporting events were launched. Asked directly why he appeared to interact with children who were not his own without many of the typical safeguards other adults might apply — showering with them, sleeping alone with them in hotel rooms, blowing on their stomachs — he essentially said that he saw those children as his own.

“It was, you know, almost an extended family,” Mr. Sandusky said of his household’s relationship with children from the charity. He then characterized his close experiences with children he took under his wing as “precious times,” and said that the physical aspect of the relationships “just happened that way.”

Wrestling, hugging — “I think a lot of the kids really reached out for that,” he said.
It's all a bit mystifying; after all, Sandusky's comments in both interviews can be used against him in court, and the Nittany Lions' former defensive coordinator didn't exactly help himself with his responses. So why let Sandusky appear on national TV--and in the pages of the NYT--offering "answers" that actually provide more ammunition for the prosecution. Does Sandusky have an incompetent attorney, or a legal sharpie who's crazy like a fox?

Don't discount the latter possibility, particularly when you remember James Carville's famous summation of Pennsylvania. The Democratic strategist once described the Keystone State, as "Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle." Of course, Mr. Carville was making a political observation; the central section of Pennsylvania is more conservative than the liberal bastions of Philly and Pittsburgh.

But middle PA also resembles Alabama in another sense: there are literally thousands of people within a two or three hour drive of State College that live (and die) with Penn State athletics, just as many Bama residents swear allegiance to the Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers.

For true believers in PSU's extended family, it's difficult to accept the proposition that Joe Paterno's long-time, trusted assistant was a serial child rapist. Or that members of Penn State's administration and athletic department spent years covering up Jerry Sandusky's alleged crimes, allowing a legendary football program to keep winning (and generating revenue).

These are the same "fans" and "supporters" who rioted when JoePa was fired. The same loyal base that generated a single protester at the home game that followed Paterno's dismissal. And for his trouble, that demonstrator (a Penn State alum from Pittsburgh) was greeted with indifference and derision from his fellow fans.

So what does this have to do with Sandusky's sudden "chattiness" with the media. We assume the defendant's will be tried in central Pennsylvania, home to the Nittany Lions' most loyal fans --the same group that doesn't want to believe the worst about their beloved football teams. The same group that will populate the jury pool that will, in the near future, determine Sandusky's guilt or innocence.

While many scoff or recoil at the former coach's explanations, there are those in and around State College who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. When Jerry Sandusky sits down with Bob Costas (or The New York Times), it's the legions of Penn State die-hards that he's speaking to. And it only takes one of them to deny a guilty verdict.

Now You See Them?

One of the more interesting "developments" from the past week was the alleged sighting of Israeli Jericho missiles near Jerusalem and in the West Bank. If those reports are accurate--and there was no confirmation from the Israeli military--they would suggest that Tel Aviv is posturing rather aggressively, or dispersing one of its most capable nuclear delivery systems to field dispersal sites. The alleged sightings came as the war of words between Israel and Iran continues to intensify, and a mysterious blast rocked one of Tehran's key nuclear facilities.

According to Aaron Klein of World Net Daily, the Jericho movement was witnessed by Israeli and Palestinian observers:

Multiple eyewitnesses reported seeing Israeli military trucks in recent days transport and station large missiles at the periphery of Jerusalem and locations inside the West Bank.

The descriptions of the projectiles are consistent with the Jewish state's mid-to-long range Jericho ballistic missiles.

The missile movement, if confirmed, would be unusual.

One of the witnesses is a member of the Palestinian Authority security services. He told me that a large missile was recently stationed near Neve Yaacov, a Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. That neighborhood is adjacent to several Palestinian-inhabited towns.

Four other eyewitnesses, Israeli and Palestinian, reported seeing similar sights during the past week--large missiles being transported by the Israeli military around Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Reached for comment, the spokesperson's of the Israel Defense Forces could not confirm the information and referred me to Israel's national police.

Mickey Rosenfeld, the national police spokesperson, told me he has no information on any such movements.

While intriguing, this narrative has a few problems. For starters, Israel's ballistic missiles are among the least-sighted weapons on earth. During my own days as a civilian analyst, I was working on an assessment that focused on denial and deception (D&D) programs in the Middle East. A colleague suggested I include the Jericho II/III program as an example of superb operational deception and security. Looking through an imagery database, I quickly discovered the reason behind his suggestion. There was virtually no imagery of field-deployed Jericho IIs and IIIs, despite the fact that both systems are a top collection priority.

In fact, one of the few field shots I found was a grainy image of rather poor quality. "We caught them early in the window," my colleague explained. "Apparently, the Israelis don't know as much about our collection capabilities as they think." But the grainy image was the exception, not the rule. Israel has an excellent satellie warning program, and schedules important military activity "around" known collection windows. By the time that satellite was in position to take a better shot, the missile was back in covered storage. On those exceptionally rare occasions when we get a high-resolution image of a Jericho in the field, it's because the Israelis want us to see it. So far, there has been no report of our spy agencies capturing an overhead shot of those Jerichos that were deployed around Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It's also worth noting the absence of hand-held images of the missiles. In an era when virtually every Israeli (and Palestinian) has a cell phone with a camera, no one apparently bothered to take a shot of this unusual activity. What are the odds of that happening?

From an operational standpoint, the deployment also makes little sense. Israel's Jericho missiles are based at Palmachin Airbase, south of Tel Aviv. Dispersal sites are believed located in less-populated areas south of the installation, as opposed to the densely-populated West Bank, or the Jerusalem area. In those locations--particularly the West Bank--missile vehicles would be potentially vulnerable to Palestinian tracking and even attack, with weapons including mortars and short-range rockets. Moving Jericho launch vehicles to Jerusalem and the West Bank would send a powerful signal, but it would improve adversary detection and surveillance--something the Israelis don't want.

The most likely scenario goes something like this: the vehicles and missiles purportedly seen last week were decoys, dispatched to populated areas to send a signal to Iran (and Israel's other enemies). Coming on the heels of a recent Jericho test launch (and successful covert attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities), the decoys were aimed at reminding Tehran that Israel has a variety of options for striking its enemies. In a worst-case scenario, the Israelis could launch nuclear-tipped Jerichos at a variety of targets in Iran, obliterating dozens of cities and military targets. By comparison, Iran's nuclear capabilities are nascent; if Tehran has the bomb, it's arsenal consists of a handful of devices, and there's no confirmation it has a warhead small enough to fit on one of its medium or intermediate-range missiles.

Finally, the Palestinians have their own reasons for hyping this story. If Israel was forced to fight its various enemies, the Palestinians would be dispatched quickly and ruthlessly, something their leaders hope to avoid. The missile story is something the PA might use in pressuring the Obama Administration to lean on Israel, hinting that the Jewish state is about to launch World War III.

Sadly, the current occupant of the White House might actually listen to such far-fetched claims--even in the absence of intelligence confirmation. After all, we know how Mr. Obama feels about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Lingering Problems?

It's no secret that the U.S. Air Force's nuclear enterprise went through a rough patch a few years back.

The dark days began with the inadvertent transfer of six, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. That mishap was followed, in relatively short order, by a series of failed inspections among the service's various nuclear-capable units and the mistaken shipment of nuclear components from an Air Force depot in Utah to Taiwan. Ultimately, the blunders led to the dismissal of the USAF Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, followed by a prolonged rebuilding process.

By most accounts, Air Force nuclear operations are now back on track. There have been no more unauthorized shipments or transfers, and units are adapting to a new, no-notice nuclear inspection program. Additionally, the service stood up a new organization, Global Strike Command, to supervise nuclear operations, and Air Force leaders began devoting more resources to the mission, after decades of neglect.

Still, the enterprise is far from trouble-free. According to Tacoma News-Tribune, the service's prime nuclear airlift unit, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, recently failed its nuclear surety inspection.

In military parlance, the mission is called Prime Nuclear Airlift Force, or PNAF.

The 62nd Airlift Wing has a motto for that mission: "PNAF... Perfect... Always!"

Not anymore.

For the first time, the wing received an overall rating of "unsatisfactory" after a weeklong inspection that concluded Monday.

The rating stems from an isolated incident involving an individual assigned to the mission, said an Air Mobility Command official with knowledge of the inspection's findings. The official declined to provide further details.

Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, an AMC spokesman, said neither nuclear weapons nor related components were used during the inspection and the public was not at risk.

"There was never any danger," he said. "The Air Force policy is we don't get into specifics on the inspections."

Roberts said the wing, which has performed the mission since 1997, can continue to do so even with the "unsatisfactory" rating.

The 62nd will undergo a mandatory re-inspection in 90 days. It was not surprising that AMC allowed the McChord wing to continue the nuclear mission, despite the failing grade. With the 62nd the only airlift wing performing those duties, suspension of the wing's certification would wreak havoc in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.

According to the News-Tribune, the public affairs office at Lewis-McChord claimed the 62nd passed its previous NSI, but didn't specify when the evaluation occurred. Under current Air Force policy, units involved in the nuclear mission are inspected at least once every 18 months. More frequent inspections are not unheard of, under the new, "no-notice" policy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Port Call Tartus?

Russian warships are reportedly en route to the Mediterranean and will soon arrive in Syria, as Moscow exhibits its displeasure over possible western intervention in that country.

According to Haaretz, Russian naval vessels will enter Syrian territorial waters shortly, as a show of support for Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who is mired in a bloody and protracted battle with anti-regime protesters. While thousands of demonstrators have been killed by police and security forces since the late spring, the resistance shows now sign of flagging, while Assad's position continues to weaken.

If the naval operations follows the pattern of past deployments, the vessels may dock at the Syrian port of Tartus, which has hosted Russian naval units since the early 1970s. In February of last year, Moscow announced plans to upgrade and modernize its naval supply and maintenance facility in Tartus, allowing it to accommodate "heavy" warships, including aircraft carriers.

The Tartus complex, once a symbol of the Soviet naval presence in the Middle East, fell into disrepair in the 1990s, as the Russian fleet suffered dramatic cutbacks and sent fewer vessels to sea. Reportedly, only one of the three floating piers at Tartus is now operational. That factor, along with the limited number of vessels in Russia's Black Sea fleet, would limit the scope of its naval deployment to Syria.

Still, the Russians could send a guided missile cruiser like the Pyotr Velikiy to the eastern Mediterranean. The Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class battlecruiser currently in service with the Russian fleet, paid a visit to Syria last year. Equipped with the naval version of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system (which has a maximum range of 100 NM), the Pyotr Velikiy could protect targets across much of northern Syria, if Moscow decided to press its luck in defending Assad.

But even if Russia remains neutral--as most observers expect--NATO planners would still have to respect the vessel's air defense capabilities in providing air support to Syrian rebels. Operating in coastal waters near Tartus, the Pyotr Velikiy's air defenses could provide coverage of key locations, including the city of Homs, which has been the scene of vicious battles between Assad's security forces and the opposition.

Obviously, the Russian naval deployment is largely symbolic, and there is no indication that Moscow wants to mix it up with NATO. Indeed, even a powerful platform like a Kirov cruiser would be no match for American naval forces and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (and his puppet master, Vladimir Putin) have no desire to lose one of their most important capital ships. But with this deployment, the Russian leaders are signaling their displeasure over a prospective alliance between NATO and Syrian rebels.

From Moscow's perspective, Syria will not become another Libya, where the U.S. and its western partners operated with impunity, rescuing rebel forces and (eventually) sealing the fate of Mommar Qadhafi. Fortunately for Mr. Assad, he has more powerful friends in places like Russia and Iran, and for now, they appear determined to keep him in power.
ADDENDUM: We should also note that Russia's naval deployment to Syria might serve another purpose. If Assad's regime crumbles, the ships could be useful in evacuating Russian nationals from Syria. We're guessing that Moscow's contractors and advisers in Syria (symbols of long-time security ties between the two countries) wouldn't be very popular--or safe--in a post-Assad environment.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shut It Down

It's rare when we agree editorially with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but columnist Jim Souhan got it right about shutting down Penn State's football program. As he writes:

What we know now is that key members of the Penn State football program were serial enablers of child rape and molestation.

Dismissing the university president and athletic director is not enough, not when your campus has been used as a safe haven and hunting ground by a pedophile. Firing Paterno is not enough, not when Paterno neglected to use his immense power to halt the abuse of children.

It is time for the powers that be to use their powers pointedly and appropriately.

Penn State should cancel the rest of the football season.

The NCAA should investigate the football program and consider the death penalty.

Many of the people who rioted on the Penn State campus Wednesday night in protest of Paterno's dismissal probably plan to attend the football game on campus Saturday. They should not be given any forum in which to voice their delusions, and certainly not a 106,572-seat stadium in which to hold an undeserved memorial to Paterno's tainted career.

To be fair, none of the Penn State players who will take the field have any connection to the scandal. But several of their coaches--including interim head coach Tom Bradley--were around, and may have been part of the conspiracy of cowardice and silence that allowed former assistant Jerry Sandusky to prey on young boys. Bradley and the rest of the staff will almost certainly be fired at the end of the season, along with other university officials. What sort of signal does it send to allow Tom Bradley to lead the Nittany Lions on the field against Nebraska?

Here's something else to consider: Penn State is currently 8-1 on the season, with an inside track to the Big Ten championship game and a slot in the Rose Bowl. Is the conference--and the NCAA--comfortable with that possibility? Barring action by the university or the NCAA, the school being labeled as "Pedophile U" could be playing in Pasadena in January. Besides, any championship won by Penn State this year will almost certainly be vacated, once the NCAA completes its investigation and levies sanctions. Why let the team compete for hardware--and victories--that will be surrendered in a matter of months?

As Mr. Souhan reminds us, the NCAA has imposed the "death penalty" on a football program only once in its history, against SMU back in the 1980s. SMU was judged guilty of paying players and had to stop playing football for two seasons. As Souhan observes, "compared with serial pedophilia [at PSU], what happened on the SMU campus is the equivalent of spitting on the sidewalk.

All the more reason, he argues, to shut down the Penn State program:

When the NCAA levies its harshest penalties, it cites a school's "lack of institutional control.'' There has never been a clearer case of university lacking institutional control over its football program than Penn State allowing Sandusky to bring children to the team's sidelines and showers.

As this post is written, the Penn State-Nebraska game is already underway, so today's spectacle in Happy Valley is proceeding as scheduled. But allowing the program to continue (until the Sandusky matter has been resolved) would be an absolute travesty, and another, needless insult to the victims of the former coach.

One final note: according to ESPN's Big Ten blog, there was exactly one protester--one--outside Beaver Stadium before today's Penn State game. Jon Matko, a Pittsburgh resident and 2000 Penn State graduate may be the only member of the university family who "gets it."

Matko thought the university should have canceled the game and the rest of the season. He knows the importance of the game to university revenue and how canceling wouldn’t be fair to the players who had nothing to do with the scandal, but felt Saturday was too soon to play.

“It’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s not about Joe. It’s about the kids.”

One of Matko’s signs featured the famous Albert Einstein quote: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

When he arrived at Beaver Stadium on Saturday morning, Matko was shocked to find himself alone. He didn’t tell his parents where he was going today, but thought he would show up at Beaver Stadium and join other protestors. But he couldn’t find any.

“It’s shocking that I’m the only one here,” he said. “It’s shocking and disturbing.”

Here's something else for the college football community to consider: would fan reaction be any different if this was happening at Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, or any other college football power? Sadly, we think not.

Mystery Blast

At least 15 Iranian military personnel died Saturday in a massive explosion at a facility described as an "arms depot" near Tehran. More from Reuters:

While there was no indication of any attack, the explosion shook Iranians for miles around at a time of mounting tensions with Israel over Iran's nuclear programme.

A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards -- Iran's elite military force -- said the blast happened as troops were moving munitions at a base in Bidganeh, near the town of Shahriar.

"My dear colleagues in the Revolutionary Guards were moving munitions in one of the arsenals at that base when, due to an incident, an explosion happened," Ramezan Sharif told state TV news channel IRINN.

"Some of the wounded are reported to be in a critical condition," he added. The semi-official Fars news agency said 25 people had been taken to hospital.

Iran quickly denied that that the facility is connected to its nuclear program, but the sudden blast--and "official" actions after the explosion--raised suspicions. The media was kept away from the scene and the head of Iran's Red Crescent organization said only six paramedics had been allowed into the Amir Al-Momenin military base--a number that seemed insufficient for a mass casualty event.

It was the second major explosion at an Iranian arms facility in a little over a year. Last October, a similar blast killed several troops at a base near Khoramabad. Several installations in that area are connected to Iran's ballistic missile program, and there was some speculation that the explosion might have been linked to an accident involving a Shahab-3 unit. The Shahab-3 is a medium-range missile, capable of striking targets as far away as Israel.

Some believe sabotage (by Israel or Iranian opposition groups) was responsible for last year's blast, and similar rumors are making the rounds about today's blast near Tehran. Modern munitions--even those used by countries like Iran--are modular in design, reliable and safe. Generally speaking, they only blow up when they're supposed to, when all components are in place and at the end of the required fusing process.

It's hard to imagine conventional weapons simply blowing up accidentally. But if the Amir Al-Momenin base was involved in weapons experiments--perhaps related to Iran's nuclear program--then the chances for an accident are significantly higher. A connection to Tehran's WMD program would also raise the interest of Israeli intelligence, and raise prospects for some sort of covert plot against the facility.

As we noted at the time of the Khoramabad explosion, it takes a great deal of planning and skill to carry out an attack on a supposedly "secure" Iranian facility. In other words, if it was sabatoge, then Israel was the most likely culprit, and the Mossad will be among the suspects in today's blast near Tehran.

But covert missions and cyber attacks cannot deter Iran's nuclear ambitions forever. This week's alarming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was a reminder that Iran has worked steadily towards building a bomb for years, undeterred by western diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions. In response, the Obama Administration announced plans to work with its allies to step up pressure on Tehran--essentially, the same, failed strategy that has been in place for years.

Meanwhile, there's been more talk about a possible Israeli strike against Iran, and that recent test launch of a Jericho III missile--a not-so-subtle reminder that while Tehran is still seeking a nuclear capability, Israel already has the capability to put nuclear weapons on Iranian targets.
ADDENDUM: There were also vague hints that the U.S. may be preparing for a worst-case scenario in the Persian Gulf. This week, the Pentagon announced the potenial sale of advanced bunker-buster munitions to the United Arab Emirates. That's the very sort of weapon that would be useful in attacking certain facilities related to Iran's nuclear program, and we're guessing that the contract comes with a certain clause--allowing the United States access to those weapons in the event of a conflict with Tehran.